Joshua Tree’s Kellogg Doolittle House is a Radical Study of Organic Architecture
Decades after its inception, the ever-evolving home continues to impress with its uniquely singular use of the natural landscape.
Situated on the outskirts of Joshua Tree National Park is the futuristic Kellogg Doolittle House. While there’s no physical indication of the boundary line – no gate or fence surrounding the property – you’ll find the Doolittle House is protectively wrapped within its own kind of organic enclosure. Built not merely among but quite literally into the terrain of the desert mountains, the nearly 5,000-square-foot house is something of a mammoth, even among the immense boulders that both surround it and make up some of its walls. Nonetheless, owner Scott Leonard can point out the exact spot where his property ends and the park begins.
Leonard first came across the home in the early 2000s, having read about it in a newspaper article. “I remember seeing photos and it took my breath away,” Leonard tells Hypebeast. “I never thought I would see it in person or own it.” Construction on Kellogg Doolittle House had begun some 20 years earlier in 1984 after its creator Kendrick Bangs Kellogg – a disciple of organic architecture pioneer Frank Lloyd Wright – received the commission from artist Bev Doolittle and her husband Jay.
Over the ensuing twenty years, Kellogg and designer John Vugrin labored over the home – collaborating on structural elements such as the 26 curved columns that rise up from the mountains and fan out like a rib cage, to intricate details like pebble-floored shower and a specially-commissioned circular bed in the master bedroom.
When he signed on to the decade-spanning project in 1988, Vugrin was just 21 years old and living in San Diego – approximately a three-hour drive from the site. By then, he had already assisted Kellogg in a few big projects, including constructing furniture for the architect’s Hoshino Stone Chapel in Nagano, Japan.
Recalling his first encounter with the property, the house was then still in a bare-bones state. “The rough columns were up but they weren’t plastered,” Vugrin says. “I looked at the plans for the doors and all the fixtures and simply I started building all the things for it.”
In its finished form, the exterior of the house appears almost bare and skeletal, but inside, handcrafted carpentry provides a resounding richness. Set upon a long, winding path, the home is accessed via a circular front door, which opens into the kitchen. Curved countertops and cabinets mold to the walls, and allow for a peeping view into the dining space. Stairs carved out of rock seamlessly lead from the ground level into a variety of doorless rooms across five different levels: a bathroom, a living room, a multi-use nook to work or read at, two master bedrooms and a plant-filled shower. Circumscribing the house is a patio that looms over sprawling miles of burnt orange desert.
For the first six years, Vugrin commuted between San Diego and Joshua Tree, and would spend his week living in the house and working with Kellogg, before driving or flying back to San Diego for the weekends. Sometimes, he went abroad to source materials, for instance, designing the countertops in Italy and shipping the marble to the U.S. via boat. “I built every door, window, floor, pathway, light, and every piece of furniture,” he says. When the Doolittles eventually moved into the house in 2000, the kitchen was complete but the two bedrooms, living room and bathrooms still needed to be completed. Vugrin once again relocated, this time to France, to finish building the remaining furnishings.
Flash forward to 2021, the home went up for sale and Leonard received an invitation to view it. Following that first tour, he immediately resolved to buy the property. “When I left the house after seeing it for the first time, I lost my vocabulary. It was hard to put sentences together.” Since then, Leonard says he “got to understand the house,” and would form bonds with individuals over their mutual and deep appreciation for not only the home in its current condition but also the decades of history behind it.
“I slowly started to realize that a new path that the house was actually opening,” he says. Architecture students frequently tour the home to study its construction, while private events are hosted within its walls and grounds. Earlier this month, for example, Alicia Keys performed an intimate concert on the patio, followed by a dinner hosted by Leonard – a subdued presence among the crowd of artists, musicians and designers alike.
Looking now to the future of the house, Leonard and Vugrin are planning to carve a space out of some of the surrounding boulders to build a pool. Beyond that, their central focus is preserving the home, while continuing to invite people who have long appreciated the space to finally see in in-person.
“My mission is to maintain and preserve the house and to create access,” Leonard says. “It’s an incredible piece of art that really no one has had access to. It’s important, to me, to have people from different geographies and walks of life come and have their own experiences here.”